As enterprises advance towards digital maturity in the times of robust cloud-based systems and stringent online security, authentication and authorisation are used in conjunction (also, often interchangeably) with each other.
Though both the terms sound similar, they refer to entirely different security processes. Within the scope of customer identity and access management (CIAM), Authentication verifies a user’s identity, while authorisation validates if the user has access to perform a specific function.
In other words, Authentication is identifying users by confirming who they say they are, while authorisation is establishing the rights and privileges of a user.
Both processes play equally important roles in securing sensitive data assets from breaches and unauthorised access.
Authentication and authorisation are the two words used in the security world. They might sound similar but are entirely different from each other. Authentication is used to authenticate someone's identity, whereas authorisation is a way to provide permission to someone to access a particular resource. These are the two basic security terms and hence need to be understood thoroughly. In this topic, we will discuss what Authentication and authorisation are and how they are differentiated.
Both Authentication and authorisation are units utilised regarding knowledge security that permits the safety of an automatic data system—each area unit crucial topics usually related to the online as essential items of its service infrastructure.
However, each of the terms is entirely different with altogether different ideas. Whereas indeed, they’re usually employed in an equivalent context with a comparable tool, they’re utterly distinct from one another.
In the authentication process, the identity of users is checked for providing access to the system. While in the authorisation process, a person’s or user’s authorities are checked for accessing the resources. Authentication is done before the authorisation process, whereas the authorisation process is done after the authentication process.
While often used interchangeably, Authentication and authorisation represent fundamentally different functions. In this article, we compare and contrast the two to show how they protect applications in complementary ways.
What These Two Terms Are And Why Should You Care About Them
People tend to get confused between the words “authentication” and “authorisation” because they sound and are spelled in a somewhat similar manner.
And while the terms appear identical on the surface, their goals are different — the first is about figuring out who you are, and the other focuses on verifying whether you’re allowed to do something.
Although they have different meanings and serve other functions, Authentication and authorisation are essential concepts of identity and access management (IAM) and good security design.
In this article, we’ll explore what these terms entail and discuss examples from real-life scenarios.
Authorisation and Authentication Within an Organisational Environment
In all organisations, Authentication and authorisation are separate but related processes.
If your organisation falls in the authentication step (i.e., if it doesn’t have a robust verification system like solid passwords, biometrics, etc., to authenticate users correctly), the outsiders can access whatever information is available to that account based on its privileges.
If your organisation doesn’t implement authorisation strategically and hands out excessive levels of access, then you’re increasing the risk of data leaks, data breaches, and other damage from insider threats.
For example, if an employee decides to steal critical company databases, files, documents, resources, and sell them to competitors or on the dark web, then you’ve essentially handed them the keys to your kingdom.
So, please make sure you carefully set the permission and access rights of all the employees. You must also encourage employees to set strong passwords or use password managers.
Authorisation and Authentication in WordPress
If you’re running a WordPress site with multiple contributors such as co-authors, editors, designers, WP developers, etc., make sure you pay equal attention to Authentication and authorisation.
For robust Authentication, you need to use plugins like Force Strong Passwords, which forces all users to create strong passwords.
You can also use password managers like Password Pointer, 1Password, LastPass, Secure Password Generator, Disable Post Passwords, etc.
To mitigate unauthorised access via brute force attacks, use plugins like Limit Login Attempts, Loginizer, or WPS Limit Login.
For authorisation, you could limit other contributors’ functions and permissions.
Only you should have 100% control over your admin panel, and others should only have access to the necessary functionalities for them to do their job.
Human Intelligence Vs. Machines in Authentication and Authorisation
In a real-life, human intelligence is an integral part of the authentication and authorisation processes.
So, let’s say a cop asks for your driver’s license, and you show him a permit with Donald Trump’s name and picture on it.
The cop instantly knows that the request is fake. He would also consider you ineligible to drive until you provide an authentic license that has information that matches your description.
However, in the digital world, Authentication isn’t as clear-cut. For example, if you were to use Trump’s correct user ID and password on Twitter, the system will instantly believe you and give access to his account and all the privileges that it entails.
As you can see, although machines have made our lives way more comfortable, it is easy to defraud them.
There are many types of advanced cyberattacks (such as cross-site scripting (XSS), SQL injection, DDoS attacks, cross-site request forgeries, etc.) that hackers can deceive the authentication and authorisation process into committing cybercrimes.
That’s why businesses must set the authentication and authorisation policies carefully and with due vigilance.
Authentication is about validating your credentials like User Name/User ID and password to verify your identity.
The system determines whether you are what you say you are using your credentials. In public and private networks, the system authenticates the user identity via login passwords. Authentication is usually done by a username and password, and sometimes in conjunction with authentication factors, which refers to the various ways to be authenticated.
Authentication factors determine the various elements the system uses to verify one’s identity before granting him access to anything from accessing a file to requesting a bank transaction.
A user’s identity can be determined by what he knows, what he has, or is. When it comes to security, at least two or all the three authentication factors must be verified to grant someone access to the system.
Based on the security level, authentication factors can vary from one of the following:
- Single-Factor Authentication – It’s the simplest authentication method that commonly relies on a simple password to grant user access to a particular system, such as a website or a network. The person can request access to the system using only one of the credentials to verify his identity. The most common example of a single-factor authentication would be login credentials which only require a password against a username.
- Two-Factor Authentication – As the name suggests, it’s a two-step verification process that requires not only a username and password but also something only the user knows to ensure an additional level of security, such as an ATM pin, which only the user knows. Using a username and password along with a different piece of confidential information makes it virtually impossible for fraudsters to steal valuable data.
- Multi-Factor Authentication – It’s the most advanced authentication method, which uses two or more levels of security from independent categories of Authentication to grant user access to the system. All the factors should be independent of each other to eliminate any vulnerability in the system. Financial organisations, banks, and law enforcement agencies use multiple-factor Authentication to safeguard their data and applications from potential threats.
For example, when you enter your ATM card into the ATM, the machine asks you to enter your pin.
After you enter the hook correctly, the bank confirms your identity that the card belongs to you, and you’re the rightful owner of the card. By validating your ATM card pin, the bank verifies your identity, which is called Authentication. It merely identifies who you are, nothing else.
Famous Authentication techniques
It is the simplest way of Authentication. It requires the password for the particular username. If the password matches the username and both details match the system's database, the user will be successfully authenticated.
In this technique, the user doesn't need any password; instead, he gets an OTP (One-time password) or link on his registered mobile number or phone number. It can also be said to be OTP-based Authentication.
2FA/MFA or 2-factor authentication/Multi-factor authentication is the higher level of Authentication. It requires additional PINs or security questions so that it can authenticate the user.
Single Sign-on or Sso is a way to enable access to multiple applications with a single set of credentials. It allows the user to sign in once, and it will automatically be signed in to all other web apps from the same centralised directory.
Social Authentication does not require additional security; instead, it verifies the user with the existing credentials for the available social network.
Authorisation, on the other hand, occurs after your identity is successfully authenticated by the system, which ultimately gives you full permission to access the resources such as information, files, databases, funds, locations, almost anything.
In simple terms, authorisation determines your ability to access the system and up to what extent.
Once your identity is verified by the system after successful Authentication, you are then authorised to access the system's resources.
The authorisation is the process to determine whether the authenticated user has access to the particular resources.
It verifies your rights to grant you access to resources such as information, databases, files, etc. Authorisation usually comes after Authentication, which confirms your privileges to perform.
In simple terms, it’s like giving someone official permission to do something or anything.
For example, verifying and confirming employees ID and passwords in an organisation is called Authentication, but determining which employee has access to which floor is called authorisation.
Let’s say you are travelling and you’re about to board a flight. When you show your ticket and some identification before checking in, you receive a boarding pass that confirms that the airport authority has authenticated your identity.
But that’s not it. A flight attendant must authorise you to board the flight you’re supposed to be flying on, allowing you access to the inside of the plane and its resources.
Access to a system is protected by both Authentication and authorisation. Any attempt to access the system might be authenticated by entering valid credentials, but it can only be accepted after a successful appointment. If the effort is shown but not authorised, the system will deny access to the system.
- Role-based Access Control
- RBAC or Role-based access control technique is given to users as per their role or profile in the organisation. It can be implemented for system-system or user-to-system.
- Json Web Token
- JSON web token or JWT is an open standard used to securely transmit the data between the parties in the JSON object. The users are verified and authorised using the private/public key pair.
- Saml stands for Security Assertion Markup Language. It is an open standard that provides authorisation credentials to service providers. These credentials are exchanged through digitally signed XML documents.
- Openid Authorisation
- It helps the clients to verify the identity of end-users based on Authentication.
- OAuth is an authorisation protocol, which enables the API to authenticate and access the requested resources.
Authentication vs. Authorisation
Authentication is one of the stepping-stones for authorisation: Only after you’re authenticated, you gain approval, but typically not vice versa.
For example, you need you user ID and password to authenticate myself to Facebook and log in to your account. Once you establish yourself, you’re authorised to make changes to your Facebook profile. But if you forget your credentials, you can’t log in to your account. Hence, you can’t use your privileges (authorisation) until you successfully pass through the authentication phase.
Both the concepts have different levels: Even after authenticating myself, can I change the entire Facebook’s colour from blue to pink? Not! So, when I log in as a user, Facebook does authorise me to post text and media on my account, manage my friend list, and make some other account-specific changes.
Despite the similar-sounding terms, Authentication and authorisation are separate steps in the login process. Understanding the difference between the two is key to successfully implementing an IAM solution.
Let's use an analogy to outline the differences.
Consider a person walking up to a locked door to provide care to a pet while the family is away on vacation. That person needs:
- Authentication, in the form of a key. The lock on the door only grants access to someone with the correct key in much the same way that a system only gives users who have the proper credentials.
- Authorisation, in the form of permissions. Once inside, the person has the authorisation to access the kitchen and open the cupboard that holds the pet food. The person may not have permission to go into the bedroom for a quick nap.
Authentication and authorisation work together in this example. A pet sitter has the right to enter the house (Authentication), and once there, they have access to certain areas (authorisation).
Systems implement these concepts in the same way, so I'M administrators must understand how to utilise both:
- Authentication. Let every staff member access your workplace systems to provide the correct credentials in response to your chosen authentication requirements.
- Authorisation. Grant permission to department-specific files and reserve access to confidential data, such as financial information, as needed. Ensure that employees have access to the files they need to do their jobs.
Understand the difference between Authentication and authorisation, and implement IAM solutions that have strong support for both. You will protect your organisation against data breaches and enable your workforce to be more productive.
- The Basic Difference between Authentication and authorisation is that Authentication is the process of verifying who you are. When you log on to a PC with a username and password, you are authenticating.
- An authorisation is a process of verifying that you have access to something. Gaining access to a resource (e.g. directory on a hard disk) because the permissions configured on it allow you access is an authorisation.
- In software, Authentication is validating that an entity is who or what it claims to be. The authorisation is validating that a user can perform a given action.
Authorisation and Authentication are integral components of any organisation’s security efforts. Virtually all organisations implement these methods for their employees and users in one way or another. The question is how well or poorly they do so.
It is a general understanding that the safer the authorisation and authentication method is, the more expensive it will be. For example, implementing biometrics. But this is a short-sighted view — and here’s why:
Consider the cost associated with cybercrimes. Once your data lands in the wrong hands — and we say “once” instead of “if” because it’s just a matter of when and not if a data breach will occur — the direct cost (like paying the ransom or unauthorised fund transfer from a bank account) and indirect cost (like spoiling company reputation due to data leaks, or losing sales due to leakage of company’s confidential information or know-how) can be devastating. Therefore, it’s essential to implement more robust and safer authorisation and authentication methods to strengthen the overall security of your business or organisation.